Mia Doi Todd Morning Music (with Andres Renteria)

[City Zen; 2009]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: chanteuse freak folk, singer-songwriter, drone
Others: Juana Molina, Kinnie Starr, Joanna Newsom, A Cid Symphony

It sounded nice on paper when I read that LA chanteuse Mia Doi Todd had decided to put her lush voice on the bench for a game. Around the time of her subtle masterpiece Gea in 2008, she started recording freewheeling session jams with Andres Renteria and saw some worth in the results. Although a large part of her appeal can be found in her sweetly haunting vocals and deeply touching lyrics, I was excited to see what she had done on Morning Music, her first purely instrumental album.

In the background, these explorations of detached piano melodies and harmonium drone, accented by tamboura, tin whistle, bongos, cajon, and udu, elicit a supreme relaxation. Influenced by the mood of classical Indian music, they coax the listener to drift away in thought, in and out of the many levels of consciousness and awareness. They are like lullabies for trees, nonsensical but faintly soothing. However, when one pays strict attention to these songs, devoid of any distraction, they just don't hold water.

Scrutiny betrays a complete lack of melodic development and structure, which will be especially difficult for fans of Todd's previous work. The tracks sound unorganized with no destination, like two intoxicated artists just making sounds for the hell of it. Granted, the serial compositions of Anton Webern and Pierre Boulez sound like anti-melodic noise to unaccustomed ears, but they are, in fact, intensely systematic. Likewise, classical Indian music is notoriously rhythmically complex, with strict improvisational guidelines.

On Morning Music, even the birds chirping in the background on "Electrafficbirds One & Two" do more on the "purely musical" level than either Todd or Andres. It's not that their eclectic sounds aren't interesting at face value or that ambient music doesn't have worth, but this album sounds like it was put together with no effort whatsoever. As long as you aren't expecting anything that sounds like a Mia Doi Todd album, you may find Morning Music quite pleasant.

Todd is a great songwriter, gifted with a compelling voice and a penchant for apt turns of phrase, but after a tour with Dungen, she started messing around with an Irish tin whistle instead of singing, "freeing [her] up from what felt like the confines of words." The problem is that her words are a big draw to her music. Without them at the core, our expectations in line with her back catalogue coupled with the formlessness of the songs leaves this album a collection aimless clatter that sounds relatively indistinguishable from any Tom, Dick, or Harry who has a field recorder and a selection of old-world instruments at their disposal.

Respect is certainly due to Todd for not simply releasing the same album repeatedly. She is continually pushing herself, a bona fide artist with integrity. However, I think Morning Music would have served Todd fans better as a bonus disc for Gea -- akin to the supplementary instrumental disc Useless Creatures for Andrew Bird's Noble Beast and Interregnums for Prefuse 73's Preparations -- or simply released free like the electrafficbirds.

Fans of her previous work will likely be very disappointed if they picked this up unknowingly, and, in any case, they'd probably be better off investing in an FM3 Buddha Machine II and making their own ambient music. Todd says that Morning Music is "not just for the morning. It's music to listen to while cooking dinner or making a list of things to do or taking long, deep breaths in downward dog or for writing your first screenplay." She got at least one thing right: this album is at its best when you are not paying attention to it. So let's just chill out and take life a little less seriously for a minute, shall we?

1. Harmonium One
2. Arise
3. Samai'i
4. Electrafficbirds One
5. Simple Things
6. Emotion
7. Electrafficbirds Two

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